Chanting and singing are natural human ways of regulating our emotions. Singing, breathing and building community all belong together.
The loss of shared singing and chanting is one of the tragedies of our current pandemic. For millennia, humans have been singing or chanting together. Whether at a place of worship, a sports stadium, a Yoga studio or a party, uniting our voices brings our breath, our emotions and the values we care about together as one. The simple act of singing Happy Birthday joins family and friends in shared celebration. I very much hope that we will not be without this key human activity for too long. It is important for our shared wellbeing.
Singing and Breathing
When we sing or chant, we naturally regulate our breathing. In the last couple of blogs I have talked about belly breath and ocean breath as helpful practices for calm and health. Singing actually gives us the benefits of both of these practices, without having to think about it.
Chanting or and singing, especially when done with enthusiasm, encourages us to open up our lungs and breathe deeply. All good singing teachers tell their students to stand or at least sit upright to sing. This opens the chest and allows the diaphragm to move freely. When we sing we use the diaphragm, practice good posture and exchange plenty of oxygen and carbon dioxide through our lungs. We also engage the calming aspects of our nervous system by activating the vagus nerve. Naturally we feel better[i].
Singing also requires control of the breath passing through the vocal cords. This has similarities with the ocean breath or ujjayi breath where we breathe with control in the throat. Some singers recommend yoga and ujjayi breath to help practice breath control[ii]. Singing is all about the breath. And the breath is the gateway to better health and feeling calm.
Singing Releases Tension
Studies have shown that when people sing the brain releases endorphins and oxytocin. These are natural neurotransmitters and hormones which help us feel positive, calm and connected. Making tuneful sounds allows us to release tension. There is plenty of evidence that singing relieves depression, lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol and boosts feelings of confidence[iii].
Singing and Mindfulness
When we chant or sing we are completely focused on what we are doing. The combination of the sounds, the words and the breathing makes it easy to be present in the moment. This is one of the reasons chanting and meditation or prayer are so closely connected in many traditions. Chanting words to music helps centre and focus the mind and brings us readily into a calm and meditative state. We can let go of our worries and feel part of something larger than ourselves.
Singing for Confidence – Swimming or in the Shower
I sometimes sing while I swim, especially when I am struggling with my breathing or confidence. Singing reminds me to breathe out regularly. It also helps me get into a steady rhythm with my stroke. This gets rid of panicky feelings and lets me relax and enjoy the experience.
Plenty of us sing in the shower. This is a private and watery place where we feel free to be ourselves. A nice loud song creates a mood of confidence and wellbeing at the start of the day. Your family might even enjoy it too!
Many speakers and performers practice voice exercises before going on stage (or on Zoom nowadays!). This is as important for calming nerves as it is for waking up the voice. Singing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxes us.
Yoga and Kirtan
I love song and chant in many traditions. Gentle Taize chants, stirring hymns and loud Abba renditions at parties all have the power to move me. In the Yoga world we have Kirtan, which is the chanting of Sanskrit mantras. This is a very beautiful experience.
Kirtan originates in the Indian Bhakti tradition, with a focus on devotion and love for the Divine. Most of the mantras used in Kirtan refer to Hindu deities. Some people from different backgrounds might be uncomfortable with this, and I would never advise anyone to sing something which does not feel right for them. The benefits of song come from our sense of union with the whole experience. Personally I like to think of the ancient sacred sounds of Kirtan as symbols and representatives of universal truths[iv].
If you would like to listen to Kirtan and join in at home, I highly recommend David Lurey who leads Kirtan on the Ekhart Yoga website. He also has some lovely recordings which you can find on Spotify or Apple Music.
I usually close my Yoga classes with a shared chant of Om. Shared for thousands for years, Om is said to be the primordial sound of the Universe. Apparently the earth as it turns makes deep sounds, far too low for human hearing[v]. Maybe this is the Om. This sound is believed to connect us to ourselves, one another and to universal energies. Certainly it has the power to calm and unite[vi].
Feeling Nervous about Singing
People often feel nervous or shy about singing or chanting aloud. Maybe you were told by a teacher that you were out of tune. Or perhaps you worry about what your voice will sound like. I would encourage you to let go of your fears and simply sing out, maybe in private or in the shower to begin with. Sing loud, and you will feel good.
Hopes for the Future
I feel sad that, for now, I cannot share an Om with Yogis in my studio. I grieve that I cannot join in a Kirtan group or sing hymns at church. I hope and pray that this time will quickly pass and we will soon be able to sing and chant together again. I believe it is crucial for sustaining human communities.
For now, we can enjoy singing alone or in our family groups. Let’s make the most of it!
Today’s Calming Practice
Today I would encourage you to do some singing or chanting, either alone or with your family. Here are some suggestions:
- Sing your favourite song in the shower
- Go for a walk and sing as you walk. Maybe put on headphones and sing along.
- Sit quietly and chant Om ten times.
- Find a Kirtan session online and join in. Here is a suggestion which I think you will love. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucwOARv8plI
Thanks for reading this blog post. I am writing a series of 31 blogs every day this August. I plan to publish them later in the year as a book entitled, ‘Finding Your Calm Space – 31 Ways to Find Calm in a Crazy World’.
I’m Karen. I am a Yoga teacher, Reflexologist and busy mum of seven. I live with my family in Billericay, Essex, UK. In the past I have worked as a Midwife, Health Visitor, Baby Signing teacher and Tax Inspector. I love getting outdoors, swimming in the sea, walking and writing. Helping people relax is one of the things I do best.
You can learn more about my Yoga classes and Reflexology at my website www.thecalmspace.co.uk